Can the Tea Party stop immigration reform?

Updated
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, and others Senators, participate in a news conference on immigration,  April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, and others Senators, participate in a news conference on immigration, April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Charles Dharapak/AP

An All-Star team of Tea Party Republicans gathered outside the Capitol on Wednesday for a rally (okay, actually an “all-day press conference”) against the immigration reform bill en route to passage in the Senate.

Among the cast of characters who spoke: Steve King of Iowa, who has called illegal immigration a “slow motion terrorist attack” and compared border crossers to cattle. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who recently claimed Islamic terrorists are training members to “act like Hispanic [sic]” and cross the border. Robert Rector, the co-author of a widely criticized Heritage Institute study claiming reform would cost trillions of dollars (the other co-author resigned his position after calling for restrictions on Hispanic immigration based on their IQs). And, of course, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who said Rector’s study shows “amnesty costs a fortune.”

“Amnesty also costs something more than just money: it can cost a nation,” she added, warning it would expand entitlement spending by “bringing in tens of millions of new people.”

Her comments were a rebuttal to a report this week by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimated the Senate’s bipartisan reform bill would save $197 billion over the next decade and $700 billion in the decade after that, mostly through economic benefits associated with Bachmann’s dreaded population increase.

There were no surprises among the speakers at Wednesday’s press conference, all of whom are well documented hardliners on immigration. Nor are they likely to derail the bipartisan “Gang of Eight’s” Senate bill, which even Senator Ted Cruz, one of the event’s speakers, has conceded is likely to pass. What they’re hoping to do is rally conservative activists to convince House Republicans, most of whom reside in solid red districts, that they’ll face a primary challenge if they back anything resembling immigration reform.

“There is nothing more powerful in politics than grassroots conservatives,” Cruz said Wednesday.

Widespread grassroots opposition on the right helped sink similar comprehensive immigration reform efforts from 2005-2007. It also created an even bigger backlash among Latino voters, leading many national Republicans to reconsider their opposition after the 2012 election.

Pro-reform Republicans have braced themselves for a revolt on the populist right this time around. Conservative big money group Crossroads GPS, tied to Karl Rove, is launching new ads urging conservatives to back reform to stop President Obama’s “de facto amnesty.” Evangelical leaders are running a nationwide campaign to convince social conservatives that there’s a Biblical case for immigration reform. And anti-tax conservatives like Grover Norquist are working hard to persuade skeptics that immigration reform will boost the economy and reduce the deficit.

For the most part, the Tea Party crowd has been relatively quiet. But that could be changing: Republican Senator John Thune complained to Politico Tuesday that he’s facing a “bombardment” of phone calls against the bill. Rand Paul, considered a swing vote on immigration, said he’s yet to see a “groundswell” of support from the GOP for reform. A number of prominent conservative commentators, including Michelle Malkin and Erick Erickson, have organized a campaign to kill the Senate bill.

Some reformers are concerned that recent movement among House Republicans towards the right on the issue may reflect grassroots anger starting to bubble up. In another worrisome development, Sean Hannity, a reliable bellwether for conservative opinion who joined the pro-reform side after the 2012 election, is now once again signaling his opposition to the Senate’s legislation.

The “Gang of Eight” point man on containing these kinds of blowups is Marco Rubio of Florida, who has made dozens of appearances on conservative news shows to defend the plan. He’s been effective; even strong opponents of reform, like Rush Limbaugh, have given him a respectful airing and tried to keep him out of the line of fire in their attacks. But Rubio’s been sounding the alarm lately that Democrats need to offer more concessions on border security or lose conservatives, perhaps reflecting increased heat from his base.

The best news for immigration reform is that surveys still show strong support for comprehensive reform and its individual policies–a path to citizenship, increased border security, a crackdown on illegal hiring–even among Republicans. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found 87% of respondents favored allowing undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship over time if they meet certain requirements first. Another poll from the National Journal the same day found a plurality of Republicans, 38%, favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while another 21% favored granting lesser legal status. These numbers come on the heels of a Fox News poll last week finding strong majorities not only favor the Senate bill’s core provisions, but consider immigration legislation an important priority.

But if the debate over background checks on gun sales is any indication, it takes only a small and loud minority of conservative activists to make lawmakers think twice about voting for even an extremely popular bill. There’s still plenty of time for that group to emerge.

Can the Tea Party stop immigration reform?

Updated